I love any book about the sea but it wasn’t clear before I began reading just how deeply Michelle Paver’s book ‘Spirit Walker’ sang the song of the waves. This is the second book in her ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ series for children and follows on from ‘Wolf Brother’, a book of the forest clans six thousand years ago in a time after the Ice Age but before farming. The clans, who are all named after animals or trees, lead a hunter-gatherer existence and live in a world filled with spirits and magic, following animistic beliefs and shamanism. In ‘Spirit Walker’ we find the main character of the series, Torak, a teenage boy, leaving his adopted clan in order to find a cure for the sickness that is sweeping through the forest. The quest leads him to the sea and to the Seal Clan on their faraway island. There he comes into contact with the people of the sea and their ways of life and with the Sea Mother and the creatures who inhabit her deep waters.
It is clear when reading the book that Michelle Paver has a great knowledge of the lives of our ancestors six thousand years ago. She writes that, in order to understand Torak’s world and the people of the Seal Clan, she travelled to the Lofoten Islands of North West Norway and also to Greenland. She also studied the ways of life of the Sami and Inuit peoples and swam with wild killer whales. What I love the most about this book is the way that love and respect for the sea pervades the life of the Seal Clan in ways that many of us could learn from today. Although some of us might consider their shamanistic belief system to be outdated in the modern world (I wouldn’t!) it speaks of a time when humans lived in harmony with their environment and took no more from it than they needed; when Torak is first taken to their island a whale has just been hunted and the clan are celebrating their good fortune. The successful hunter eats none of the meat but instead cuts off his hair, makes offerings to the whale spirit, and spends the night alone in a cave. I wonder how different our own respect for the food we eat, and for our own bodies might be, if we showed similar respect?
But my favourite parts of the book are the descriptions of Torak’s time actually IN the sea (he is used to the forest and falls into the sea often); although it would ruin the book to explain why, or how, on several occasions his consciousness merges with a shoal of fish, with a seal, and he hears the whispers of the Sea Mother. The book describes so well that different way of being and sensing in the sea which, as land creatures, we can only imagine. Here, a description of him ‘becoming’ a seal…
“…he could hear the tiny, hard, biting sounds of the fish nibbling kelp, the brittle clink of crabs finding their way over rocks. But, most of all, he could feel through his whiskers. His whiskers were so keen that they could pick up the rippling tracks of the smallest fish as it darted through the water. The sea was webbed and criss-crossed with thousands of invisible fish trails. And he felt it, too, the strong, slow tremors which the kelp sent back through the water; and the waves echoing off the rocks…” (p.206)
Although this is a children’s book I never thought about that as I read it; the story carries you along, just as the sea does, and flows with rich descriptions and exciting adventures. If you love the sea and crave a deeper connection, or to strengthen the one that you already have, then ‘Spirit Walker’ is for you. I particularly enjoyed reading it in the bath!
Enjoy diving into the wave!
(‘Spirit Walker’ by Michelle Paver, Orion Books, 2005)
Review: Jacqueline Woodward-Smith